April 20, 2006

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An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths, by Glenn Reynolds (Nelson Current Books, 2006, 289 pages)

One day, we might all be able to work in our pajamas.

Well, not all of us, but those of us in media and information technology, those who offer boutique products and services — they, we, might find ourselves self-employed or employed by tiny businesses operated in our homes. It would be a return, Glenn Reynolds argues, to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of life.

I know a small but growing number of people who do this. Generally, it works like this: some combination of affordable housing and good job brings a family to southern New Hampshire. One member (the husband, usually) has a solid job, the other (the wife usually) often has child-care responsibilities but also a career she wants to keep going and a financial need to bring in money. So she turns to part-time telecommuting work or starts a business she can run in the non-traditional work hours of the early morning, late evening or whenever the kid takes a nap.

Each one of these people has become a “David.”

These Davids, according to Reynolds, will beat the Goliaths of media and industry. The army of Davids that use eBay to earn their livelihoods is now greater than the army employed by Wal-Mart, and while no one person on eBay will ever match the sales of Wal-Mart, each David can improve his individual pay and quality of life. This is the real benefit of new technology and, in some ways, the benefit of the Industrial Revolution it could replace. If goods like clothing and personal computers and office supplies are cheap, we can start our own businesses and we can choose to pay more for items important to us. Which means that the cubicle drone who chucks the Dilbert lifestyle to stay home and make small batches of beer can charge three times as much for a six-pack as Budweiser does — because beer aficionados will have the money to buy it.

There are some problems with this. Big-box employment usually comes with some (however meager) health care and retirement benefits that we will have to make more readily available to the self-employed. Reynolds is basically a free-market guy and seems to suggest that the market will fill those holes.

Reynolds also talks about how the little guy and his obsessive interest in stuff (science, for example) can help encourage space exploration (specifically Mars — Reynolds is very hot on getting something like the American frontier going on Mars) and even anti-terrorism efforts (on this point, I think he is a little sketchier). And then there’s nanotechnology, which would (conceivably) allow tiny robots to turn dirt and sunlight into stuff a la the Star Trek replicator. Reynolds believes the Davids will absolutely cream the Goliaths with this.

Reynolds makes his point pretty well and with enthusiasm. The book is a quick read, leaving you plenty of time to ponder the bigger issues (with no office at which to meet our buddies, what kinds of social gathering spots will take their place?). Should you be looking for a push to start that custom guitar-making business or that fresh bread delivery service, Reynolds will give you a giddy shove. B+

— Amy Diaz


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